Greece’s northern mainland is dominated by the provinces of Macedonia and Thrace. Each has been part of the Greek state for less than a century – Macedonia (Makedhonía) was surrendered by the Turks in 1913 while Greek sovereignty over western Thrace (Thráki) was not confirmed until 1923 and there is still a sizeable ethnic minority population. Consequently, they stand slightly apart from the rest of the country, an impression reinforced for visitors by architecture and scenery, customs and climate that seem more Balkan than typically Mediterranean. In fact the region is relatively little known to outsiders, perhaps thanks to its capricious climate, lack of beach resorts and few charter flights. Yet northern Greece is one of the country’s most rewarding areas to visit.
Mount Olympus, mythical abode of the gods, is a tempting target for hikers, while Mount Áthos, a Byzantine ecclesiastical idyll, is an unmissable attraction (at least for men, who are the only ones allowed here). The sybaritic capital of Macedonia, Thessaloníki, and the region’s other main city, Kavála, are also intriguing places to visit, the former providing access to the beach-fringed peninsula of Halkidhikí. The north also has more outstandingly beautiful spots, especially the Préspa National Park in rugged western Macedonia and the birdwatchers’ heaven of the Kerkíni wetlands to the east. The lakeside city of Kastoriá and the clifftop town of Édhessa are among Greece’s most beguiling urban centres, thanks to a belated but determined attempt to restore some fine old buildings. Admittedly, the region’s ancient sites are relatively modest, though there is one notable exception: the awe-inspiring Macedonian tombs discovered at Vergina in the 1970s, near the pleasant city of Véria. Not so well known are the Macedonian and Roman sites at Pella, with its fabulous mosaics, and at Philippi, St Paul’s first stop in Greece. Few travellers on their way to Bulgaria or Turkey stray from the dull trunk road through Thrace, but the well-preserved town of Xánthi, a trio of minor archeological sites, the waterfowl reserves of the Évros Delta and the Dhadhiá Forest, with its black vultures, deserve more than just a meal stop. Alexandhroúpoli is dull but rewards the curious with one of the best ethnological museums in the whole of Greece.